The future of U.S.-Turkey strategic relations

Events of recent years have placed immense strain on the U.S.-Turkey relationship. In 2019, Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria and purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems contributed to a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington that Turkey is an unreliable ally.

With acute flashpoints creating turmoil on a number of bilateral issues, it is worth considering the potential trajectories that Turkey may take over the long-term and what the implications are for strategic relations between the United States and Turkey.

Located at the fulcrum between Europe and the Middle East, cooperative relations with Turkey are of immense geostrategic importance to the United States and Europe. And yet, U.S. policy makers are increasingly focusing on punitive reactions to Turkish foreign policy decisions and routinely question Turkey’s NATO membership, even though there is no mechanism to expel a member from the alliance.

An abandonment of the U.S.-Turkey relationship would, however, not serve U.S. interests. The debate between experts tends to centre on whether the United States should seek a transactional relationship, or pursue more principled engagement with its erstwhile ally.

As Amanda Sloat, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted in 2018, “What makes Turkey such a policy conundrum is that its problematic leadership faces real threats, a fact that often seems lost on the West.”

“At the same time, Turkey’s leadership is growing more authoritarian and moving the country away from democratic standards,” she continued. “In addition, Erdoğan’s anti-Western rhetoric and objectionable international moves have led some in the United States and Europe to question whether he takes seriously the trans-Atlantic alliance.”

These problematic disconnects persist today. Merve Tahiroğlu, the Turkey Program coordinator at POMED, told Ahval: “The main problem with U.S. policy towards Turkey today is that it fails to properly account for Turkey's un-democratic and anti-Western turn under Erdoğan.”

Some parts of the U.S. bureaucracy do appear to be taking note of the need for a more strategic review of the relationship. The U.S. Army funded a recent paper by the RAND Corporation that analyses four potential trajectories Turkey’s foreign policy could take and the implications for U.S Army planning, and U.S. foreign policy more generally.

The remainder of this article will address the two more improbable scenarios RAND raises; a resurgence of democracy if Erdoğan loses re-election in 2023, and an alternative possibility of Erdoğan cutting Western ties definitively in pursuit of making Turkey a Eurasian power.

A resurgence of democracy that rolls back the Erdoğan-led AKP’s authoritarian streak would be the most beneficial for U.S. interests, but is it a real possibility?

That is anybody guess according to Sibel Oktay, an assistant professor and co-director of the Global Studies programme at the University of Illinois, Springfield. “What we are witnessing is a competitive authoritarian regime,” she told Ahval. “There are elections, sure, but the playing field is far from level for the candidates.”

As a political scientist though, she said, “I am fascinated by the fact that turnout still remains high under the circumstances, and this gives me immense hope for the future against all odds.”

“The likelihood of Erdoğan’s defeat is still very low in my opinion,” she cautioned, “but a combination of a few factors can change this. One, there has to be a strong, charismatic new opposition candidate.”

Two former senior figures in Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan, have broken off to form a new party, but Oktay said she does not think either man could forge a broad enough coalition to make it to a second round of voting in the 2023 presidential election.

In addition to charismatic leadership, she said, “the opposition must keep explaining to the voters in plain language that Turkey has regressed under Erdoğan’s rule. Ekrem İmamoğlu did just that. He relentlessly exposed the corruption and the waste in Istanbul.”

Despite intervention by Erdoğan forcing an election rerun last year, İmamoğlu was able to defeat his AKP opponent for mayor of Istanbul. Replicating this strategy would require immense discipline and cohesion from opposition parties on a national scale.

The polar opposite idea of a complete rupture in U.S.-Turkey relations, with Turkey leaving NATO and aligning more closely with authoritarian partners in Eurasia and the Middle East, appears equally unlikely given the myriad benefits Turkey accrues from NATO membership and trade with Europe.

However, the RAND paper notes that the Eurasian vision, “has gained resonance in political and academic circles, particularly following the U.S. decision in May 2017 to provide heavy weapons to Syria’s People’s Protection Units. Advocates of this reorientation have reportedly gained bureaucratic influence as they have assumed some positions in the Foreign Ministry and armed forces vacated by Atlanticists purged in the wake of the coup.”

It is highly questionable, given the polarisation of Turkish politics, whether popular support for such a radical reorientation of Turkish foreign policy could develop. However, it is true that many Turks think the United States’ Syria policy is detrimental to Turkey’s national security and that the massive post-coup shake-up of the Turkish bureaucracy has ejected many elites who favour Western engagement from decision-making positions.

The constitutional changes approved in 2017 have also strengthened presidential control over the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), power which Erdoğan’s administration has used to either cashier or involuntarily retire 46 percent of the military’s general and flag officers.

According to the RAND paper, “the government has plans to recruit about 43,000 new personnel to fill its depleted ranks and reform all levels of professional military education, with the goals of breaking down the TSK’s insular culture as guardians of secularism and ensuring that more-diverse recruits are being enlisted.”

Remaking the TSK’s leadership ranks could aid the AKP if it decides to push for the Eurasian power scenario, but the RAND paper also notes that, “mid-level officers are reported to be extremely frustrated with the military leadership and concerned about being removed in the continuing post-coup purges”.

The paper cautions that, “this discontent could even lead to another coup attempt at some point, and Erdoğan appears to take the threat seriously.” Erdoğan will be eager to capitalise on support from the TSK leadership for a Eurasian reorientation, but he will be cautious not to push this advantage too far given the risk of backlash from the lower ranks.

The fault lines within Turkish society and the bureaucracy make these best and worst-case scenarios from a U.S. perspective unlikely. Next week, I will examine Turkey’s more probable foreign policy orientations, as a difficult ally or a strategic balancer, and how the United States could adapt its policy accordingly.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.